This morning I said goodbye to a remarkable woman a the funeral of Dr Joan Martin, who died peacefully after a short illness aged 102. I had the privilege of interviewing Dr Joan last summer and then met with her again at the unveiling of the Bethnal Green Disaster Memorial in December 2017. I have never seen a church packed solid with so many people from all walks of all, all bound by a deep respect and love for Dr Joan. Sunlight filled the church of St Mary Abbots in Kensington as Revt Michael Colclough lead the eulogy, he puzzled:
How do you go about summing up a life lived full to overflowing?
This is my attempt….Born in November 1915, Joan was determined to become a doctor after her best friend died of Polio. ‘It’s so unfair’ she complained to her father. ‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’ he challenged. His words hit home and a 5-year-old Joan resolved that one day, she would help people survive illness.
Joan was one of a handful of female trainee doctors to be accepted by the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust in 1939, the only London Medical School that took women, just as war broke out. Despite a fear of fire, she managed to work through the Blitz tending to victims “with their guts hanging out”, moonlighting with the London Ambulance Service by night to earn extra money. But of all the heart-wrenching sights she witnessed, it was the disaster at Bethnal Green underground in 1943 that had the most profound effect on Joan, who was by now working as a Junior Casualty Officer, when she experienced a ‘night of undiluted hell’.
Joan tended to 173 corpses, mainly women and children, killed in a devastating crush at the entrance to the station shelter, the mothers’ fingers still curled form where they had been grasping their children when they died. By morning, Joan was exhausted and sick of heart at the sight of so much death. “I’ve never seen such a ghastly heap of bodies”, she says quietly. Ordered by her seniors never to breathe a word of what she witnessed, I got the sense when I interviewed her that seventy-four years on, she was still processing the hellish events of that dark, bleak night.
After wading through so many corpses, the disaster remained hauntingly in her mind. Sadly, the murky pool of memories were stirred up when Joan heard about the fire at Grenfell Tower. ‘It was entirely preventable, just as the disaster at Bethnal Green was’, she told me angrily. ‘I visited the tower, to take some food and clothing, offer what little help I could and it filled me with sadness. When will the authorities learn?’
The image of a 102-year -old wartime doctor, wandering once more amongst London’s burn ruins is a powerful one. Joan visited because impoverished North Kensington was her patch as a doctor for many years, a place where she worked tirelessly to dispense health and healing. Witnessing so much death and destruction amongst people she loved, was almost unbearable for her.
Doctor Joan wasn’t just an inspiration, feted for her heroic wartime work and the setting up and running of a swimming club for the disabled, among many other charitable works, she was also an MBE, who met the Queen and was awarded the St Mellitus Medal by the Bishop of Kensington. But of all the people she met in her 102 years, Dr Joan saved her highest praise for the wartime mothers of the East End. ‘They were remarkable, tough women who suffered great deprivation, but always, always put their children first, often going hungry themselves so that they might eat.’
Her eyes shone with a fierce determination when she lent forward to tell me this:
In World War Two, it was women who saved the day
The next time I saw Dr Joan was at the unveiling of the new memorial at the Bethnal Green Tube Disaster – Stairway to Heaven Memorial. ‘Yes I’m still here’ she joked when I went to greet her (photo below). Dr Joan was a TV star that day, interviewed by a battery of TV and radio presenters, not that she cared about that. She was in her words, just pleased to be alive to honour the poor souls who she laid out on the night of March 3rd 1943. Four weeks after the unveiling of the memorial, she passed away. Rest in peace Dr Joan Martin. You can read more about Dr Joan’s remarkable life in my new book, The Stepney Doorstep Society.